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An Émigré’s Sense of Longing and Dislocation: NoViolet Bulawayo on Being Shortlisted for the Man Booker

We Need New NamesBy Michele Magwood for The Sunday Times

NoViolet Bulawayo, a slight, quietly-spoken author, was elated when the news broke that her first novel, We Need New Names, had been shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. “It’s starting to sink in,” she said, “Just making it to the longlist was enough. I’m really proud because it’s the first Zimbabwean novel ever to make it this far.”

The literary festival that she was attending in Cape Town, Open Book, erupted around her in celebration.

We Need New Names tells the story of 10-year-old Darling, raised in the shacklands of Bulawayo, who moves to America to live with an aunt. It has been praised for its urgent, distinctive voice and poignant exploration of home and identity. To some extent the story mirrors Bulawayo’s own experiences, although she was raised in a comfortable home. Darling’s comfortable home had been razed in the mayhem of Mugabe’s infamous murambatsvina (“drive out rubbish”) operation, her family reduced to living in a tin hut, her school closed.

NoViolet left Zimbabwe for the US ostensibly to study law. While at Kalamazoo Community College in Michigan, however, she fell in love with literature and went on to gain an MA in Creative Writing from Cornell in New York State. She is now a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. The sense of longing and dislocation that émigrés feel is at the centre of her book. Shortly before the shortlist was announced Bulawayo had told an audience how difficult it is to relate to America as home, and that her heart was always in Zimbabwe. “There’s this split. When you leave a place that has defined you for so long you leave a part of yourself behind and it only gets reconciled when you are back at home.”

NoViolet is part of a new band of African writers exploring the theme of emigration and identity, such as Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie and Taiye Selasi.

“I consider myself to be post-post-colonial, if there is such a thing,” she says. “We were born after that very difficult time in the country and then grew up in the Eighties. We were born to cross borders and that really complicates our identities. We are more global, we relate to Zimbabwe looking backward at it from a removed space.”

The title of the book refers to the habit of immigrants giving their children American names, “to make them belong.” NoViolet says it also refers to Zimbabweans generally needing a new identity. “We need new ways of looking at ourselves, new ways of imagining our realities, our destinies. We need new leaders. We have to revamp the system and in a way revamp the self.”

It’s interesting to note that she herself has changed her name. She was born Elizabeth Tshele, but to her family and friends she was always known as Mkha. She laughs. “I only encountered the name Elizabeth when I went to school in first grade. Whoever sent us to school forgot to tell us that we had these fancy English names, so we didn’t know who the teacher was talking to.”

She named herself Violet after her mother, who died when she was 18 months old. “NoViolet” means “with Violet”. “For me it was about forging a sense of completeness, of finding some peace where my mother was concerned. With Bulawayo I was again forging some peace with the place I left behind. I feel that Bulawayo now is a portable part of me wherever I am.”

There’s a scene in We Need New Names when Darling is on the phone to Chipo, her childhood friend back home. “You left the house burning,” she says to Darling, “You ran away from it instead of trying to put out the flames.” Is this the guilt that many émigrés feel?

“Yes, there is guilt,” says NoViolet, “because part of the reality is that there are thousands and thousands of Zimbabweans that stayed. There is the guilt even now when I go back home. I feel this sense of privilege walking down the street of my location and seeing kids who were like me, even smarter than me, and knowing I am where I am just because of the accident of being able to leave. That guilt stays with you – you can see yourself in their faces.”

Ironically, she says, it is those who left who ended up supporting those at home, thereby perpetuating the situation.

“Part of why there was no change at home is because there was no pressure. People were able to find alternative circumstances and were able to send money home to sustain their families. So the crisis was not felt and I think that it was the diaspora that saved the homeland in the last decade. If that wasn’t the case I feel people would have demanded their due and made a difference.”

In the panel discussion at Open Book NoViolet and her fellow writers Yewande Omotoso, Kgebetli Moele and Jamala Safari had despaired at the tendency to lump all African writers together, as if they represent the whole continent.

NoViolet reported that she often doesn’t know what country in Africa the US networks are reporting on, as if the continent is all one nation. Will the attention of this shortlisting help to delineate Zimbabwe in readers’ eyes?

“Yes, I think writers have a chance to break that generalising. I’m giving a specific face to a specific narrative and people might actually think oh yes there is a Zimbabwe in Africa and be more curious about it. But it’s going to take a while.”

While the world of Darling and her feral band of friends (Chipo and Godknows and Bastard) is a scrabbling, bleak one, the book is also funny and tender. “I wanted to point to the fact that people were living living their lives and dreaming and hoping. I wanted to show that there was life somehow, it wasn’t just a book that set out to depress. I wanted humour and humanity – for me that’s what literature should do.”

And with that she is off to phone her father in Bulawayo, who for years believed she was indeed studying law. Even now he’s not quite sure what she does. “I’ll have to explain it to him.” – Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

Book details

Image courtesy World News


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